While Mike Minor was the Royals’ first big splash this off-season on Sunday evening, the Royals first “official” big deal came on Monday, as the Royals announced the signing of former Washington Nationals outfielder Michael A. Taylor (While Minor’s deal was announced Sunday evening, it did not become official until Tuesday):
At the surface, the Taylor acquisition may seem puzzling to Royals fans. This off-season, general manager Dayton Moore made it known that he wanted the Royals to improve their on-base percentage (OBP) as a team in 2021. However, Taylor is a stark contrast to that statement, as he has not only struggled to get on-base consistently over his career (according to Fangraphs, his career OBP in 1,804 plate appearances with the Nationals is .291), but he has also had problems with making contact (career 69.4 percent contact rate) as well as striking out (career 31.4 percent strikeout rate and 0.22 BB/K ratio). Taylor has certainly flashed some impressive tools over the course of his seven-year career in Washington, and he has had spurts where he seemed on the verge of breaking out (his 2017 season was the biggest example, as he posted a 104 wRC+ and accumulated a 3.1 WAR, both career highs). However, the 29-year-old often showed more promise than production over his tenure as a National, and as he enters his age-30 season, Royals fans have to wonder why the Royals pursued Taylor when there were certainly more dependable outfield options available on the market, even if they may have been more expensive (he signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal).
However, even though the initial reaction may have been head-scratching, the reasoning behind the Taylor makes a little more sense if one reads Alec Lewis’ piece on the Athletic in regard to the signing:
Here’s a key tidbit from Lewis’ piece that may give fans a clearer idea in terms of why the Royals acquired Taylor, even though his offense has been questionable over the course of his MLB career:
FanGraphs tracks defensive runs saved, a number that rates individual players as above or below average on defense. It includes a defender’s starting position. It takes into account direction, speed, distance and type of every batted ball. The statistic also can be broken down by position, which brings us to the notable portion of the proceedings.
In 2020, the Royals’ center fielders posted minus-nine defensive runs saved — the worst in baseball.
“We’ve talked repeatedly for many years about the importance of having at least two players on your roster who can play center field and play it at an elite level,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Monday afternoon. “Michael A. Taylor can do that.”“Royals sign outfielder Michael A. Taylor: How the move cements a core KC belief” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic
In many ways, Moore putting an emphasis on defense in center field this off-season is not a surprise. While Whit Merrifield is one of the Royals’ best offensive players, he looked uncomfortable in center field in 2020, and it was obvious that he would be a better fit in left and right, should the Royals keep him in the outfield (Statcast metrics also supported this as well). Brett Phillips did provide some spectacular plays on occasion at Kauffman Stadium, but he was inconsistent on jumps and reading the ball, and that was evident in 2020, as he posted a 1 Out BELOW Average (OAA) mark with the Royals before being traded to Tampa Bay. And while Bubba Starling has gotten high marks for his athleticism and defense in the minors, metrically, he hasn’t really been all that impressive, as he was 1 Out BELOW Average in 2019 and 2 Outs Above Average in 2020 (an improvement, but not all that dramatic).
Taylor should solve that defensive deficiency in center field in 2021. While he only posted a 2 OAA mark in 2019 and a 0 OAA mark in 2020, according to Baseball Savant, that was mostly due to inconsistent playing time in Washington the past two seasons. In 2017 and 2018, when he got more regular time? He combined for a 19 OAA, which made him one of the more elite defensive outfielders in all of Major League Baseball. And thus, if Moore and the Royals wanted a solid defensive glove to patrol Kauffman’s spacious grounds, and do so on the cheap, well…then Taylor fits that bill perfectly. Furthermore, the new Royals outfielder also adds some speed to boot, as he stole 24 bases in 2018, the last year he had regular playing time with the Nationals.
As Royals fans know, speed, defense, and “tool potential” are three of Moore’s calling cards when it comes to determining what players he will acquire in free agency or trade. Last season, Moore traded for speed, defense and tools, as he acquired Franchy Cordero and Edward Olivares from the Padres (in the Tim Hill and Trevor Rosenthal deals, respectively), and Lucuis Fox from Tampa Bay Rays (in the Brett Phillips deal). At the Winter Meetings in December of 2018, the Royals acquired Billy Hamilton, who was non-tendered by the Cincinnati Reds after the 2018 season. Much like Taylor, Hamilton had speed, defense and “tool potential”, but unfortunately, he failed to do much as a Royal, as he posted a .211/.275/.269 slash in 305 plate appearances before he was eventually released.
So what make Taylor different? What separates the former National from other failed outfield projects like Hamilton and Phillips?
Well, his revamped swing, and surprising fanfare from Washington could perhaps give him a different outlook in 2021 in Kansas City.
Shortly after the Taylor signing was announced, Grayson Skweres, a freelance baseball writer and collegiate baseball player for Florida Southern, shared a deep dive analysis of Taylor that he did for personal research purposes. Here is the Tweet below, which also includes a link to his piece:
Skweres’ most fascinating point, which has also been touched upon in a Royals Review article by Craig Brown, is Taylor’s transition from utilizing a big leg kick to an approach that now refrains from using a kick at all. Essentially, Taylor went from an approach that was more akin to the power approach of Anthony Rendon, who did come up in the Nationals Minor League system with Taylor, to one that was simpler and more refined over the past couple of seasons.
While people should read the whole article, as Skweres utilizes analysis of GIFs in comparing Taylor and Rendon’s swings, here is a interesting tidbit that goes into more detail in regard to Taylor’s swing and approach transformation:
In 2018, Taylor had a big leg kick and a big separation movement with his hands. The movement with his hands reminded me of his teammate at the time, Anthony Rendon. However, Rendon did (does) it with a very simple stride while Taylor did it with the leg kick….The problem is that Taylor swung-and-missed too much in 2018 (30.1% K% and 32.1% Whiff %). He also chased out of the zone 28.8% of the time, 5.5% worse than his current mark. His approach over the offseason from ‘18 & ‘19? Clearly to simplify.
He not only eliminated the leg kick, but he totally eliminated his stride…
However, Taylor actually got worse in 2019. As stated earlier in the breakdown, he struck out 35% of the time in 2019, whiffed more than he ever had, and pulled the ball more than he ever had.
I think the struggles are mainly chalked up to a lengthy adjustment period. As someone that’s gone through an adjustment period where I eliminated a leg kick in favor of a simple stride, it’s amazing how much more time you feel like you have, and it’s hard not to get out front and over the front side.“Michael A. Taylor: A Buy Low Option” by Grayson Skweres
Skweres also goes into Taylor’s second season of his change, though like he mentioned before, there was an adjustment period, and he didn’t get a whole lot of at-bats to put his adjustments into action (he only played in 38 games in 2020):
So what did Taylor do in 2020? More of the same, mostly, with a tiny bit more simplification.
His front heel lift is less pronounced and more simple. He has even less body movement, focusing on getting into hip coil.
There’s less movement with his hands, and he finishes his load with them in a lower position than he did in 2018 & 2019.
He starts his load earlier in 2020 than he did in 2019.“Michael A. Taylor: A Buy Low Option” by Grayson Skweres
As stated before, Skweres is not alone in this analysis as both Brown of Royals Review and Lewis of the Athletic also point this change out in their respective articles. And thus, Royals fans need to wonder: is Taylor on the verge of a breakout in 2021 offensively? After all, he has had less than 200 plate appearances with this new “approach”. If he gets anywhere from 400-500 plate appearances in 2021, could his new “swing” produce some tangible results as a Royal, with perhaps something close to his .271/.320/.486 line in 2017? (In which he accumulated 432 plate appearances in 118 games.)
The advanced metrics seem to hint that Taylor is progressing offensively, as his K rate dropped from 35.1 percent in 2019 to 27.3 percent in 2020, and inversely, his barrel rate increased from 7.1 percent to 13.8 percent from 2019 to 2020, respectively. And thus, while Taylor may not be a .300 hitter or make Royals fans forget Lorenzo Cain or his offensive and defensive production anytime soon, there are plenty of signs that his new plate approach and swing could finally come to fruition in Kansas City, which would make his $1.75 million more than worth it for the Royals.
His defense and new swing and approach are interesting tidbits on Taylor. That being said, what should fascinate Royals fans the most, in regard to the newly acquired outfielder, is how much of a fan favorite he was in Washington. If one moseys onto Baseball Reddit, it’s amazing how positive many of the comments are in regard to Taylor, especially from Nationals fans. That was even more evident on Twitter, as many Nationals fans and even writers/bloggers who cover the team had similar sentiments as the Tweet below:
Right now, many Royals fans see Taylor as another “Dayton Moore” fre agent signing, and that’s not exactly a term of endearment. Many Royals fans will see Taylor’s paltry offensive metrics, regression on the basepaths (he’s only stolen 6 bases the past two years after stealing 24 in 2018) and lack of regular playing time the past two seasons and picture another Phillips, Hamilton, or even Joey Gathright. Taylor, unfairly or not, fits the mold of the “lots of tools, but lack of production” Royals free agent signing who unfortunately has burned Kansas City fans countless times before. Yes, Taylor has showed some progress if one really dives deep into his metrics. And yes, at 1-year $1.75 million, he is a relatively low-risk signing. If he doesn’t work out, his contract won’t hurt the Royals’ bottom line. After all, Chris Owings got almost double that amount in 2019.
But the scars run deep for Royals fans in the modern era (i.e. post-Ewing Kauffman), especially as the club has struggled to be competitive since 2017. And unfortunately, signings like Taylor can dredge up those scars and bad memories, and that seems to be the case if one checks out Royals Twitter or Social Media in general.
However, there is something intriguing about Taylor, and his outlook in Kansas City. Maybe the Royals would be better off going with Cordero or Olivares in center field, but Taylor has at least “proven” himself at the MLB level somewhat, unlike Cordero and Olivares, who haven’t really played a full MLB season yet in their professional careers. Perhaps Taylor will be another Phillips or Hamilton. That being said, he could also be another Cain, Jarrod Dyson, or even Paulo Orlando, i.e. a late blooming player who finally finds a home and spot in the Kansas City outfield.
Who knows what Taylor will bring to the Royals outfield and lineup next season. But this much is certain: Washington fans loved him as a National, and that’s not easy to do with a fan base that can be fickle with players, especially once they leave DC. (Bryce Harper ring a bell?)
Royals fans need to give Taylor a chance…whatever his role in the outfield should be.
Because hopefully, in 2021, Kansas City can grow to appreciate him much like Washington fans did over the last seven years.